Dems to pick in 20th House race

The effects of legislative redistricting will be apparent in the May 20 primary election, and especially for voters in Avalon and Bellevue.

The two communities have been absorbed into the 20th Legislative District, which encompasses West View, parts of Ross Township, Brighton Heights and other areas of the North Side, as well as Lawrenceville. With the changes, the 20th District becomes less a City of Pittsburgh district and more evenly divided between the city and its closest suburbs to the north.

The addition of those communities has produced a primary contest for incumbent state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, who has held the seat since a special election to fill a vacancy in June of 2010. His challenger for the Democratic nomination is Tom Michalow, former Avalon Council member and current Northgate High School teacher.

Ravenstahl, of course, is the brother of former Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl. He is a graduate of North Catholic High School and holds a bachelor’s degree in business from Robert Morris University. Ravenstahl, 29, and his wife, Alisha, reside on the North Side.

Michalow, 43, is a graduate of North Allegheny High School and Virginia Military Institute. He also holds a master’s degree in education from Duquesne University. He and his wife, Wendy, have two young children and have lived in Avalon for more than 17 years.

Michalow teaches history and German at Northgate, where he takes groups of students to Europe to see the Nazi concentration camps firsthand. It is a subject that is more than a history lesson to him, as his father is a concentration camp survivor.

His past and his profession weave together to create the platform for his campaign, which he says is really about “human rights.” He is a staunch supporter of traditional Democratic positions supporting women’s reproductive freedom and gay marriage. He looks at prejudice and discrimination in Pennsylvania and says, “We’ve made progress, but it’s still out there.”

Ravenstahl agrees with him on the matter of gay marriage, and in fact points out that he was a co-sponsor of the state’s gay marriage bill, but describes himself as “pro-life” and supports abortion only when necessary for the mother’s health, or in cases of rape or incest. Last year he voted in favor of a bill that prohibits coverage of abortions by policies in the state’s insurance exchange.

Both of the candidates agree that the state’s lack of funding for public education is a major issue that needs to be addressed.

"It’s absolutely outrageous what’s been happening in our school districts,” Ravenstahl said, with too much of the funding burden placed on local communities.

Michalow also notes that there is an inequality in how districts are funded, thanks to Gov. Tom Corbett’s influence in directing funds to Republican districts.

“It’s immoral to play politics with education funding,” Michalow said.

Ravenstahl, like a number of gubernatorial candidates, says the state needs to impose a tax on Marcellus Shale drillers and close the tax loophole that allows Pennsylvania corporations to avoid state taxes by registering in Delaware.

“It’s time for corporations to pay their fair share,” he said.

He said that although he has voted against Corbett’s budgets because, at least in part, of the cuts in educational funding, the state budgets are lean, and many cuts have already been made to a variety of programs. A new source of funding is critical, he said.

Michalow partially disagrees with the “Marcellus Shale - Delaware loophole” answer.

First, he says, there are more problems with education than just more funding. For instance, he says, standardized testing is out of control, with far too many days of the school year lost to preparation “boot camps” and the testing itself. He said that one teacher estimates he loses one-third of the school year to test-related instruction.

Michalow also argues that technical education and schools have been decimated in the current state education policy.

“We’ve gotten the idea that working for a living is bad,” he said. Instead, high school students are pushed toward four-year schools that may or may not be where they belong, and the tuition at those schools is producing college graduates who are deeply in debt and still not trained for a profession.

He also maintains that college tuitions must be addressed, perhaps through a merit-based scholarship program.

Michalow also is not so quick to jump on the Marcellus Shale tax bandwagon.

“We’re not 100 percent sure we should be drilling,” he said, noting that the environmental dangers from drilling and fracking have yet to be addressed. He advocates a more proactive approach. 'Let’s not make problems then clean them up. Let’s make sure we don’t make problems,” he said. “Didn’t we learn anything from the coal companies of the 1900s?”

Ravenstahl’s position is that a moratorium on drilling is easy to talk about, but nearly impossible to do with a state senate and house that are controlled by the Republicans. If that ever becomes a possibility, he said, he would be more than willing to consider it, but, in the meantime, a drilling tax could produce anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion in revenue for the state.

In fact, Ravenstahl says, it is difficult to get anything done in Harrisburg given the GOP super majority, which he said leads to Democrats being completely excluded from discussions, or their legislation proposals being stolen by those across the aisle.

Instead, he says, he does what he can, which is focus on constituent services. He points to the many political action committee endorsements he has received, as well as his endorsement by his Democratic colleagues in the House.

“They see me every day,” he said. “They know how hard I work.”

Michalow, who also has been endorsed by several groups, says that showing up to vote with Democrats on the floor of the House is part of the job, but a very small part. The district, he says, needs a stronger, more outspoken advocate for its interests, someone who will come up with solutions and then fight to make them happen.

Whoever wins the primary election next week will face Republican Tom Fodi in November. Fodi is unopposed in the GOP primary.

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